Meet the Gemstones: Natural Pearls
Talking to a friend recently, I mentioned “natural pearls.” She didn’t know what I meant.
Cultured pearls are the pearls 99.99 percent of us know and see almost every day—online, in department stores, in jewelry stores, in our mothers’ jewelry boxes. Cultured or human-assisted pearls started when Kokichi Mikimoto discovered, in the late 19th century, that he could encourage the pearl-making process by inserting a round, mother-of-pearl bead into the mollusk. Since their introduction, at the beginning of the 20th century, cultured pearls have taken over the pearl market to such an extent that my friend is probably not alone. Few people, except connoisseurs, collectors of antique jewelry, dealers in natural pearls, and museum curators, remember that pearls were once (and are still, now, though far more rarely) recovered almost accidentally from mollusks.
What is a Natural Pearl?
Natural pearls occur when in something gets into a mollusk’s shell and irritates the animal’s sensitive flesh. Romantically, the irritant has been described as “a grain of sand.” It is more often a parasite of some kind, boring through the shell. The mollusk lacquers over it with the same material that coats the inside of the shell—what we know of as mother-of-pearl, but called nacre when applied to a pearl. This creates a smooth, less irritating surface on the invader. (Also, I’m sure, kills the parasite. A lovely solution to an irritating problem.) The mollusk continues to roll nacre around the growing ball. The longer the time this goes on, the larger the pearl.
Natural Pearls Through History
If you’ve seen portraits of long-dead kings, queens, and other rich and aristocratic people in museums, or if you’ve seen photos of busty society matrons from the early part of the 20th century (the Gilded Age), you’ve seen them dripping in pearls: tiaras, hair ornaments, and crowns, brooches, pins, and strands. All of them are natural pearls. All retrieved by free-divers from astounding depths with the hopes that the mollusks they were bringing up would contain pearls. (There are still some free divers working in the world–hard, dangerous work, usually very poorly paid.)
Natural pearls are some of the rarest gemstones on earth, despite what you might think considering the portraits described above. While the pearls worn by aristocrats and society matrons were strikingly beautiful, not every pearl that comes from a mollusk is attractive. There have been some astonishingly ugly lumps found in mollusks that, while technically “pearls,” are nothing anyone would want to wear, much less keep. (Look up images of the “Pearl of Lao Tzu” to see what I mean.)
As with any fine gemstone, it takes a perfect storm of perfect conditions to produce a fine pearl: the right kind of mollusk (some produce better pearls than others), the right conditions inside the mollusk, the right water conditions, the right growing time—not too short, not too long.
Where Do Natural Pearls Come From?
Natural pearls have become very rare due to overfishing (remember those images of pearl-wearers described above?) and pollution. The biggest historical pearl beds were in the Persian Gulf where, according to pearl expert Elisabeth Strack, “70 to 80 per cent of all natural pearls” came from until the 1930s-1950s. But in the mid-20th century, natural pearls were declining in the market place.
Besides the rise of far less expensive cultured pearls, the discovery of oil in the states surrounding the Persian Gulf offered better-paying jobs in the oil fields to former pearl divers. Naturally, oil leakage from tankers polluted the clean waters necessary for healthy, pearl-producing mollusks. Wars in the area also contribute to the low number of divers and the increase in pollution. While some natural pearls still come from the region, production is nothing like it used to be. Those found almost never leave the region.
Another reason natural pearls have become increasingly rare is that they are fragile. Without proper care, they can deteriorate. They are easily damaged by blows or harder materials.
As you might expect, then, natural pearls that still come onto the market—either newly discovered or from antique pieces of jewelry—are excruciatingly expensive. But they are still lovely to look at. And if you get the chance to see them—at an antique show or in a museum collection of jewelry—enjoy them, knowing their amazing history and rarity.
For more information on the history of natural pearls, see Pearls by Elisabeth Strack (affiliate link).
Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.